The 77's & Michael Roe
A Critical Discography by Brad Caviness

Key to the official 7ball "Asterisk Rating":
* * * * * = doesn't get any better than this;
* * * * = could do worse!
* * * = average...a representative work for this artist/group;
* * ='s could do better!
* = uh, HARRIET! Where'd you put that gas mask?!!!

In 1982, while the rest of the music scene was exploding in creative new directions during the burgeoning new wave era, most christian rockers were still rehashing musical ideas from the late 60's (pre-new wave, pre-punk, pre-disco!), which was the last time most of those musicians had contact with the outside music scene. The relative boon of legitimate alternative and modern rock artists we are experiencing in christian music today seemed an impossible dream in an age when there were usually fewer than ten records a year you wouldn't be embarrassed to play for a non-christian friend. Daniel Amos was breaking new ground with the Alarma Chronicles and Rez Band was showing everybody what it really meant to rock. But also at that time DeGarmo & Key quit playing rock music to work on their demographics and Petra was learning to write songs for christian radio.

Then along comes this upstart outfit Exit Records from Sacramento, Calif., and a then unheard of group called the 77's making huge leaps forward musically in a time when even small strides were important and appreciated.

Read 7ball's exclusive Interview with Michael Roe

[Please wait while we load in the info and cover-scans for 14 reviews!]


The 77's
Ping Pong Over the Abyss
Exit Records (1982)
* * * *

Technically, Ping Pong was recorded by "the savage young Scratch Band," the name Roe and Co. traded under before changing their name literally as the record was being pressed. "It was charity," said Roe of the Scratch Band's work as an outreach of Sacramento's Warehouse church.

It wasn't until they started recording, he said, that the band decided they might have any artistic pretensions. Like many bands' first attempts at recording, the 77's reach exceeded its grasp on Ping Pong Over the Abyss. Musically, the record, while e ons a head of most christian rock, was less an individual musical statement than a reading of early 80's top 40 power pop sounds. And lyrically, the Sevens were more interested at this point in writing songs that "ministered" than presenting a creative representation of faith. But the Sevens still managed to pull off a few numbers (namely "A Different Kind of Light," "Someone New," "Ping Pong Over the Abyss") that go beyond the new wave trendiness and heavy handed evangelism that make the record stand out over the years.


The 77's
All Fall Down
Exit/A&M Records (1984)
* * * *

Recorded in tandem with Charlie Peacock's Lie Down in the Grass, All Fall Down set the 77's on the tenuous first rung of the ladder to "Top 40 Teen Stardom." "Mercy, Mercy" got a few spins on MTV, and the record did well on the radio in L.A. and in other progressive music markets. The new wave stuff was still happening some, but the one-two blues rock attack of "Mercy, Mercy" and "You Don't Scare Me" provided what was probably the best two single sides of the year. And "Caught in an Unguarded Moment" (an unconscious rip-off of the Jim Carroll Band's "People Who Died") cast the band's evangelistic goals in hip post-punk angst that gave listeners the first glimpse of the premiere rock band the Seven's were becoming.

[77s CD]

Exit/Island Records (1987)
* * * * *

"Do It for Love" hit the classic rock formula somewhere between U2 and Springsteen while "The Lust, the Flesh, the Eyes, and the Pride of Life," co-opted the Byrds' Chris Hillman on bass and mandolin to get that retro-60's alternative jangle pop just right. The musical meltdown the band performs on "Pearls Before Swine" would make the Velvet Underground fall out from envy.

Ironically, despite the record's numerous musical references - or perhaps because of them - "The Island Album," as the Seventy Seven's first self-titled record has come to be known, was the album where the band first found their own distinctive musical voice and realized the full potential they possessed to make vital rock n' roll.

The album received about a week's worth of attention, including a glowing review by Rolling Stone, before being obliterated by U2's The Joshua Tree and forgotten by Island. About the first three albums, Roe said: "I look at those and say that was part of learning. Part of growing up, leaning how to write, how to record. Some of it I hate. Some of it I think is ok. Some of it I think is very good."


7&7 is (Michael Roe sort of solo)
More Miserable Than You'll Ever Be
Alternative Records (1990)
* * * *

Recorded in late 1989 (and originally released as a cd-3/cassette/7" mini box set) when the 77's were more of a concept than a band (Jan Eric had defected to Nashville to manage Charlie Peacock and Mark Tootle was pursuing other interests), Roe calls this his first solo album when he wants to sell copies and dismisses it as a bootleg the rest of the time. Miserable contains an EP's worth of noteworthy new material and a number of demos and alternate takes from the Island release.

Roe scored a couple of college radio successes with the one-two shot of "Miserable" and "Tattoo." And his acoustic cover of the Velvet Underground's "Jesus" is stunning for it's beauty and the way Roe effortlessly recaptures the song's spirituality from Lou Reed's sneering sarcasm. "The Treasure in You" turned a tender lullaby Roe wrote for his then newborn daughter in to a torchy ballad. It was his first such attempt at this kind of song, but it paved the way for many others like it on his other solo records. Quite a treasure if you know where to find it.


The 77's
Sticks and Stones
Broken Records (1990)
* * * * *

Heralded as the 77's comeback release, this collection of out takes, demos and rarities - many of which were never considered good enough for the Sevens' previous releases - ironically became the band's most critically and commercially well-received release up to that point.

Sticks and Stones epitomized the 77's musical cross pollination of past and present. "MT" is probably the Sevens' best attempt at modern pop, with a muscular guitar hook that rocks your teeth out and quirky, synth-based groove that doesn't give in to new wave cheekiness. "Perfect Blues" is in the same roadhouse spirit as "Mercy, Mercy" and "You Don't Scare Me," while "This is the Way Love is" and "Nowhere Else" sent the band in previously unexplored pop directions.

But Sticks and Stones has more to offer than just dance numbers.

"Don't, This Way" is "perhaps the saddest song I've ever heard," Roe claims in the album's liner notes and elegantly captures in these few words the ache and loss in the lyrics and melody of this song.

Six of the songs ("MT," "Nowhere Else," "This is the Way Love is," "Perfect Blues," "Don't, This Way" and "Love Without Dreams") comprised a 1988 demo the band shopped exhaustively to major labels after being released from Island. Released only on Broken Records, Sticks and Stones also signaled a switch of attention from a mainstream to a Christian audience.


The 77's
BAI (1991)
* * * * *

A "killer" live album recorded in the prime of the original 77's abilities in front of a fanatical hometown audience. 88 was originally conceived as a 2-LP follow up to "the Island Record," but got shelved for three years when that deal fell apart. When it finally saw the light of day courtesy of Brainstorm Records three years later, it was shrunk to a single disc collection featuring material written exclusively by Roe, save for a spirited cover of the Yardbird's "Over, Under, Sideways, Down."

The four new songs ("Wild Blue," "Mary and the Baby Elvis," "Closer" and "Where it's At") are wonderful additions to the Seven's catalog, especially Roger Smith's inspired performance on the B3 on "Wild Blue" and Roe's raunchy, bluesy rave-up on "Closer." The real highlight, however, is the 23-minute-but-passes-in-the-blink-of-an-eye showstopper of "Mercy, Mercy" and "You Don't Scare Me." It brought the house down in 88, and it'll crack your foundation today.


The Seventy Sevens
BAI/WAL (1992)
* * * *

Self-titled by the record company, but called "Pray Naked" by the band and fans (my copy was hand titled by Mr. Roe hisself), this was the first 77's all-new recording in five years and the first to feature new members David Leonhardt and Mark Harmon.

The lead off track, "Woody," caused quite a stir among the 77's faithful with it's darker lyrical tone and a guitar hook stolen straight from Led Zeppelin's book of stolen blues rock riffs. And the title of the title track alienated all but a few retailers and radio programmers. But for the trickle of controversy the record created, it opened a floodgate of creativity and new ideas. Fans caught the lyrical significance of coming spiritually undressed to address the Creator while also appreciating the humorous double entendre.

"Smiley Smile" could be a bootlegged out take from the famed "lost" Beach Boys album of the same name. While the shimmery guitar tones and achingly haunting falsetto vocals of "Happy Roy" (in tribute to passed on rock pioneer Roy Orbison) are quite sad.

Roe's musical and lyrical collaboration with Leonhardt and Harmon (and other ex- Strawman Bill Harmon) brought the 77's to a new level of creative scope and expression. "Pray Naked" set the stage for Roe's "end of your rope" narratives that have defined his work since this project.

Rarely since then, however, has the band so perfectly captured the schandenfreude - joy from pain - that embodies living redemption. And makes "Pray Naked" the Seventy Sevens' artistic high-water mark.


The 77's
Drowning with Land in Sight
Myrrh Records (1994)
* * * * *

How did Mike Roe celebrate conquering the ccm mainstream and landing a deal with Myrrh Records, the mother ship of all Christian pop labels? How else? By turning in a darkly brilliant collection of songs that take a number of left turns designed to keep the "establishment" at a distance. Some worked. Word back masked the phrase "kicked my ass" on "Dave's Blues," completely missing the tribute to Leonhardt who gave his all on Drowning despite undergoing treatment for Hodgkin's Disease at the time. Most video shows also found Roe's Alice Cooper impersonation in the video for "Snake" too creepy for the airwaves. However, their note for note cover of Led Zep's "Nobody's Fault but Mine" was a huge hit on Christian rock radio. And they didn't make any pretense about "stealing it back" for Blind Willie Johnson.


The Strawmen
At Home
198794 (1994)/second version Liquid Disc (1996)
* * *

The Strawmen (Leonhardt, Harmon and brother Bill Harmon) never played a single concert, never signed a record deal, and never really left their garage, but somehow managed to record an album around the time the 77's were working the Island release. Though several songs saw the light of day on "Pray Naked," At Home was bootlegged by the former band members to satisfy the curiosity of fans who had heard rumors about this noteworthy collection.


Michael Roe
Safe as Milk
VIA Records (1995)
* * *

An eclectic and richly varied official solo album that, with David Leonhardt's move to Atlanta to start a family and Aaron Smith's move to "thrash and pound" professionally in Nashville, again signals the passing of the 77's into the "concept" stage.

Everyone who has ever heard a Seventy Sevens' release knows that Roe's influences cover a wide range and several decades of pop music. But I don't think anyone suspected just how far that gulf spanned. R&B torch ballads sit next to folk-rock pop songs, which sit next to bluesy modern rock numbers. "Till Jesu Comes" and "I Need God" were the two singles that *again* could have put Roe over the top of the christian radio charts, but never got the shot. And "It's for You" perfectly epitomized the conundrum most christian "crossover" artists face: too coarse for a churched audience and too spiritual for a worldly one.

The 12-song uncensored version, even with its alluded to swearing and racier edge, stands up better than the more widely available nine-song version. The racier edge of the longer release gives a more well-rounded feel to the whole project, especially convenient since the two halves of this project are sequenced in reverse order on the cd.


The 77's
1 2 3 (box set)
VIA Records (1995)
* * * * *

The 77's first three albums collected for the first time in digital form with two albums' worth of bonus tracks. Roe insists, "it's not truly a box set. It's three albums in a box, But that's okay. What I'm hoping for is that people will get to hear what we did, because the records sounded terrible. The cassettes and the albums that came out, with the exception of the Island release, which was as good as could be, were just plain awful."

As with most 77 releases, this set, and both versions of Safe as Milk, had a painfully short shelf-life; both were only in stores a few months before Via Records effectively went belly up. But RadRockers ( rescued most of the remaining inventory and is selling both projects at a reasonable price (the box set currently is being offered below retail). Unless another company comes to the rescue again, it won't, be long till these releases are talked about more than they are heard.


The 77's
Tom Tom Blues
Brainstorm Records (1995)
* * * *

For tom tom Blues, the Seventy Sevens scaled back to a power-trio, with long time side-man Mark Harmon on bass and Vector/Charlie Peacock drummer Bruce Spencer pounding the skins. With fewer players and musical layers to lean on, Roe puts his guitar in the listener's face with a fiery blues assault that stands in contrast to the pop and gospel from Safe as Milk and the post-modern rock on Drowning with Land in Sight.

Roe's songs are more hard-luck, end-of-your-rope stories that search for more redemption than they offer. But ultimately, that is what makes the blues so appealing: "the struggle is the blood of the proof." Happy blues don't make any sense.


Michael Roe
the Boat Ashore
Innocent Media (1996)
* * *

Roe's second solo project is just as far afield of his material with the 77's as Safe as Milk. But the Boat Ashore (a delicious pun 77's fans have been expecting and, probably, dreading for years) has coalesced Milk's dizzying array of styles into a format that much more effectively fuses Roe's influences from pop, gospel, rock, country and jazz. For example, on "Love Like Gold" Roe combines a slight country twang with Beach Boys' harmonies and Jerry Garcia-influenced lead guitar. Few others can effectively draw on such a wide array of influences without losing sight of the song. Again Roe manages not only to keep the song in focus, but use these subtle shades to draw subtle nuances out of the music that a narrower focus would ignore or not explore.

Harmon and Spencer join Roe on this musical excursion, and prove to be as versatile as their leader at performing disparate styles of music. Spencer even takes co- writer and co-producer credits on a few of the numbers.


The 77's
Echoes O' Faith (Played Naked)
Fools of the World (1996)
* * * *

Another bootleg tolerated because the band gets to sell copies through the fan club. Echoes O' Faith was recorded in the fall of 1992 during the similarly named venue's acoustic music series which also featured the Choir, Dead Artist Syndrome, Undercov er and others (all of which were reportedly recorded by Brian Healey, the producer of this disc)

This disc makes it clear why the "unplugged" was so appealing before it was done to death. Scaled back to the barest of instrumentation, the spotlight is squarely on the melodies, the hooks and the Seventy Sevens ability to make that electric connection with their audience, even when the power is turned off. Echoes gave the band a chance to fool around with the arrangement of their more popular live songs and play a number of other songs - like "Ba Ba Ba Ba" and "Nowhere Else" - that the band couldn't convincingly pull off live with electric instruments, and therefore never played.

The empathy and intimacy with the audience that night (evident by the loud cheering and singing) is magically and effortlessly translated digitally for an experience that goes beyond "you are there" to something closer to "you are part of it," a connection few bands are capable of in any medium.

The disc is only being sold through mail order and only 1,000 copies were pressed, although I suspect more will be made if there is a sufficient demand. But just in case, you better buy now or risk suffering later.

©1996 7ball Magazine--all rights reserved